Thursday, May 07, 2009

Being Richard Florida

CEOs for Cities picked up Sean Safford's (he of "Why the Garden Club Couldn't Save Youngstown" fame) rather scathing rebuke of Richard Florida posted back in mid-March over at Rust Belt Bloggers. I'd love to know why this is coming up now. It might have something to do with Safford's guest appearance at orgtheory:

I have written elsewhere on my views of Richard Florida’s empirical and theoretical shortcomings. In achieving relevance, I think he compromises too much rigor. But I don’t fault him the effort. And I don’t think the answer is to run away from relevance. Rather, I think it is incumbent on those of us who strive for (or at least sympathize with the pursuit of) relevance to debate where to draw the line dividing acceptable empirical or theoretical compromises from schlock. Most of us who read this page would agree that Richard Florida crosses the line.

Schlock? I read Safford as saying that not only is Florida's research "shoddy" but, more distressingly, dangerous. If Safford is right, then Ontario is in for a world of hurt.

I think Safford is confusing urban policy debate with academic integrity. Florida's stature within the field is one issue. But as a public intellectual, Florida is extremely effective. He's helped to reframe the discussion and put cities back on the political map. Translating even the best research into policy is fraught with peril. Can anyone really claim with any certainty that Florida's ideas will fail?

Initiatives to plug the brain drain do not rise from rigorous research. The best one can hope for are reliable numbers to help government and the polity to make an informed decision. There isn't some tried and true formula for revitalizing Rust Belt cities. We know how to critique the failures, but that's about the extent of efficacy. I doubt the quality of Florida's social science makes any difference in policy circles.


Mark Arsenal said...

My personal enmity with the man is that he's totally a student of macroeconomic orthodoxy. He thinks elites should attract a specific type of business class and individual in order to create a sparkly-shiny city.

He, like most elites, doesn't want individuals to make a difference in their streets and neighborhoods, he wants to play god with the anthills from afar.

Economic Sociologist said...

Glad you picked up on the post... It was something I wrote in a fit a few months back, but has been revived due to a post I have on that post is directly relevant to your point... its speaking to sociologists and asking just what we should do about the Tom Friedmans, Malcolm Gladwells and Richard Floridas of the world.

But more to your point, I dont think that I'm conflating rigor and relevance. I am saying--pretty explicitly--that i think Richard Florida confuses them and, indeed, i do think that that is dangerous when it leaves readers -- and more importantly, policy makers--with the wrong conclusions. I'm fine with popularizing, but the underlying substance needs to be right.

Finally, my book is out! Brazen plug but the readers of this blog are squarely in the center of the demographic. Pick on up today!

-Sean Safford

Jim Russell said...

Dr. Safford,

I rate only a syndicated comment?

Much more seriously, Aaron Renn's post is a useful place to continue the dialog, if you are so inclined. Aaron has cultivated a great forum for debate.

I intend to buy your book. The book review at is inspirational and your invocation of Robert Putnam got my attention. Good stuff.

I'm not convinced that your critique of Florida is relevant to policymakers. Strikes me as an academic debate I've encountered a number of times in the past. Furthermore, why is Florida of concern to sociologists? If Rich invokes any field, he positions himself as a geographer.

I boil it down to voices who influence urban policy. Florida is persuasive, perhaps even seductive. Nonetheless, who are you to say what conclusions are right or wrong? You come across as another ideologue, not an academic.

Economic Sociologist said...

not exactly syndicated... the comment I posted over yonder was meant for you; but once it was posted, it was posted... anyhow, i read occasionally and will continue to... good stuff.

and ideologue, perhaps, but mainly a perhaps too much a purist when it comes to argumentation. but i do think its important; there is only so much money and attention out there among the policy set and i really don't see the value in much of what richard is selling these days. its dangerous because it detracts from more serious policy ideas.

Anonymous said...

Dr Safford,

Surely, your concept that social institutions need to be based on the premise of attracting and retaining capital for the welfare of the community is just based on 'macroeconomic orthodoxy' as Florida's writing.

Although Florida's writing has a cause and effect problem; diverse in-migrants are attracted by wealth, not necessarily the cause of wealth in the first place (which you seem to argue in the case of Allentown).

Mark, surely a key realisation is that we are in ants in an anthill. Having meet that realisation, there is only so much any individual can do by joining rather moribound organisations which seek to gratify themselves with rather bland projects that do not appeal to a wide population.

Fundamentally, Florida, Thockal, Safford and possibly even Putnam believe in the same goal - attracting a specific business calss to create a sparkly shiny city.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if this is a repost. Please post this instead of previous

Dr Safford,

Surely your thesis has just the same amount of 'macroeconomic orthodoxy' as Florida's. Indeed, it seems simply a matter of causality, with the same end result.

For example, how great was Allenstown's economic trajectory after its social mobilisation? Surely a comparative analysis between two, albeit similar, towns is rather narrow considering around the same time hundreds if not thousands of towns will have been going through a similar process with equally different results. For example, a 'Garden club' may not have saved Allenstown, but could have saved Georgestown?

Florida's conclusions are valid to some extent, but I disagree diversity is a cause of economic growth, and probably reflects the consequences.

There is a more fundamental question between 'world-views', industrialisation created massive urbanisation. Instead of allowing new economic circumstances to permit new human settlement patterns, we decide that it is actually a 'sociological' problem.

Surely the same could be said for changing from a hunter-gatherer society to agrarian society? A hunter gatherer collective in China could have survived in 3456 BC because if only they adopted the correct form of social structure.